Born in London in 1875, Edmund Gwenn tackled myriad theatrical and silver screen characters throughout his career, but is most recognized for his portrayal of a man who believed that he was Santa Claus in the 1947 holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street. Gwenn not only nabbed this part at the golden age of 71, but also an Academy Award and an iconic place in Hollywood history. He died in Los Angeles in 1959.
Actor Edmund Gwenn was born Edmund Kellaway on September 26, 1875, in the Wandsworth district of London, England. (He changed his last name to "Gwenn" later in life.) After studying at St. Olave's College, he enrolled at King's College in London. It was there that Gwenn discovered his zeal for acting, which put him at odds with his civil servant father, who expected his eldest child to follow in the family footsteps. Gwenn was ostracized from his home, but that didn't stop him from pursuing his acting ambitions. He began working in various theatrical troupes by age 18.
The up-and-comer's big career break came in 1902 in London, when George Bernard Shaw chose him for the play Man and Superman. After that performance, Gwenn's acting reputation was solidified and he worked continuously, except for his time serving in the British Army during World War I. Afterward, Gwenn headed stateside to continue on as a stage actor.
In America, Gwenn branched out from the theater. In 1916, he began appearing on the big screen, beginning with a part in The Real Thing At Last, a silent movie based on William Shakespeare's Macbeth, which satirized the movie industry. More movie roles poured in for the stage actor; he soon found himself co-starring with the likes of such blockbuster names as Katherine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and Jack Benny.
Despite his earlier successes, it was not until Gwenn was 71 years old that he landed the role of his life. He was cast in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street as a department store Santa who claimed to be the real Kris Kringle. The warmhearted comedy turned Gwenn into a star, and he took home a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role. In his Oscar acceptance speech, he exuded the sentiments, "Now I know there's a Santa Claus!" He also added that the jolly man in the red suit came in many forms, and one of them was George Seaton, director of Miracle on 34th Street.
Gwenn garnered other movie roles and accolades later in life, including an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win for the 1950 film Mister 880. He continued to work as an elderly entertainer into the late 1950s, ending his career not long before his death, on September 6, 1959, in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, from pneumonia after complications from a stroke. Gwenn's final film was the 1958 comedy The Rocket from Calabuch.
Although Gwenn was briefly married to an actress to Minnie Terry, the two never had children. However, Gwenn's legacy lives on with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, into which he was inducted on February 8, 1960, in addition to his many unforgettable roles in classic films.
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